Parents and teachers experience satisfaction watching children's neurodevelopmental systems expand in their capabilities over days, months, and years, especially when the functions are put to good use, exercised like limber muscles. Caring adults have to realize that a system deteriorates drastically when it is underutilized. For example, if a child almost never elaborates on ideas, rarely talks in complete sentences, and instead overindulges in words like "stuff" and "thing," or else in profanity, then his verbal skills will stagnate, fail to grow, and even diminish. If you never do any running, the neurodevelopmental functions needed for running are likely to starve, inevitably eroding your overall gross motor performance.
Your child's neurodevelopmental systems never get a chance to perform as soloists; they constantly join forces to accomplish good results. Memory partners with language to help your third grader recall the words to "Silent Night." Attention control reacts with gross motor ability to produce the sinking of a long putt on the eighteenth green. Sequencing, visual memory, and language combine with social awareness to let you explain to a friend the plot of the science fiction thriller you saw on TV last night.
Every one of our children ambles down the highly judgmental corridors of school each day dragging along his mind's profile, a partly hidden spreadsheet of personal strengths and weaknesses. And throughout every moment of the school day that profile gets put to the test. Some of our children are blessed with profiles that are magnificently matched to expectations, while others are saddled with profiles that fail to mesh with demands -- an all too common disparity that can arise at any age.
If a child you know has a profile that's not conforming to demands, don't give up and don't allow him to give up either. That very profile has a good chance of coming into its own sooner or later. That's because we know a pattern of strengths and weaknesses may operate particularly well at specific ages and in certain contexts but not nearly so optimally in other times and under alternative circumstances.
This was just the case with Toby. He was a kid who had a lot of trouble with the memory demands of both elementary and middle school. He had trouble remembering facts and skills quickly and automatically, and it was hard for him to hold several things in his mind at once while completing an assignment. As a result he was wiped out in algebra and had a very hard time with writing assignments. In the latter case, he kept forgetting what he was going to write whenever he paused to think about spelling. But Toby was brilliantly creative, and he was a phenomenal conceptualizer and a razor-sharp critical thinker. After barely surviving daily disgrace in elementary and middle school due to his memory shortfall, he rose like a ballistic missile when he was allowed to take advanced placement courses in history, English, and art in high school. A guidance counselor had been humane and perceptive enough to know that sometimes you fix a weakness by pursuing strengths. His honor classes all downplayed sheer memory work and stressed instead original and critical thinking. Graduating near the top of his class, Toby majored in political science at Brown University, and is now a Ph.D. candidate with an interest in the career pathways of successful national leaders. He has just written an important book on the subject of political motivation. He still claims to have trouble with his memory, but that doesn't seem to matter or interfere anymore. Computers have helped enormously. As he reflects, "My hard drive is sitting on my desk, so it doesn't need to be housed in my skull! Besides, no one around here gets tenure because of his memory."
I think a big part of teaching and parenting entails helping kids make it through periods when they feel inadequate. It happens to everyone once in a while. And that is why we need to think about how a particular mind is fitting in at a particular time of life. It means we need to consider "a mind at a time" (a second meaning of the title of this book).
Copyright © 2002 by Mel Levine
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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